ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday March 23, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 43


My friend to the end

Parliamentarian Anura Bandaranaike who passed away last week was a man of many parts. Here theatre personality Jith Peiris, one of his closest friends, speaks to Hiranthi Fernando about his friendship of 45 years with AB as Anura was affectionately referred to.

Anura with Jith

We were friends from our schooldays, though we attended different schools. Anura was a Royalist, while I was a Thomian. We often used to ‘hack’ each other about our schools. Many were the references to our schools and it was all good fun.

To me, Anura was not just a friend. We had a special relationship because we shared many common interests. Politics, international affairs, drama, films and sports were some subjects that interested us both and we enjoyed discussing at length. When we were both students in London, we never missed watching tennis at Wimbledon and cricket at Lords. As he arrived in London he would take ‘Time Out’ where details of theatre programmes were found and bookings early. Sometimes he used to watch two films and a play in one day. This was too much for me and I would slip out of some of them.

From a young age, Anura maintained a scrap book, in which he pasted items of interest he cut out from film magazines and theatre programmes. He had handwritten notes on each play or film as well as little biographical details on all the actors, actresses and directors. He had a pile of these scrap books which he maintained from twelve years of age until five years ago. They were most interesting. Film and theatre posters adorned the walls of many rooms in his house. Whenever he saw a play in any part of the world, he always brought the posters and programme for me.

In almost every production I did, Anura took a keen interest. He often told me to read the script three times. Sometimes he would call me to inquire whether I had. When it came to musicals, he got a variety of information from the US, on the particular production, cut out and ready for me to read up. I used to be quite nervous when he came for my production because he was a critic with a sharp eye and ear. He spotted small errors and pointed them out. I recall once when I was doing a Shakespeare production, he remarked, “The male period costumes are excellent but the female costumes are more Versace than Elizabethan”. On musicals, he gave me useful advice on the songs I chose, and always stressed that I should go for stage presentation and not only for the voice. He had a human touch as well. I remember I was doing a school play and AB knew that rehearsals went on till 11 p.m. He advised me not to inconvenience parents with late rehearsals. He said only politicians do that.

Anura’s interest in film and theatre was wide and varied. We often enjoyed discussing actors, actresses and details about the productions. On numerous occasions in London, we have both watched our mutual favourite actor, Sir Laurence Olivier even two and three times in the same play. The annual Academy Awards also interested him. For at least the past 30 years, we always watched it together. Before the event we were quite excited guessing the winners and winning films. When it came to theatre and film it was not just a surface discussion but a deep one that we enjoyed. So you can imagine what it meant to me.

AB was widely read. He was particularly interested in history, politics, and biographies. He had one of the best libraries on international affairs and political biographies. The biography of many a great man was discussed by us. The last book we had the opportunity of discussing was about Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. The speeches of Sir Winston Churchill were often repeated, savoured and enjoyed.

A skilled orator, he often quoted Churchill, Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens and others in his political speeches. I was often asked to find references. It was more than a pleasure for me. Speaking of political figures, in his home, Anura had a large collection of framed photographs of himself with various world leaders. As both his parents served as prime ministers, he had the opportunity of meeting so many leaders.

He was extremely proud of this collection and would often show it to friends who visited him. Among the leaders were Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Mao, Castro, Tito, Margaret Thatcher, Trudeau, Marcos, Benazir Bhutto, two popes and many more. Benazir Bhutto was a longstanding personal friend. She visited Sri Lanka to celebrate the occasion of Anura’s 20 years in Parliament.

As a politician, AB relished his parliamentary career, which peaked as Speaker, when he gave a historic judgement. Although he did not reach the two top posts as his parents and sister did, I cannot think that it bothered him too much. What really touched me about his life was his genuine concern for other people. His generosity was unprecedented when it came to helping those who have not. He often concerned himself trying to find the right doctors when friends needed medical advice. To me in particular, after my stroke, he was always concerned, constantly advising me on what I should and should not do. Also, he was never revengeful. He was devoid of viciousness. He was a lover of animals, dogs in particular. He had several pet Beagles in his home. When we were in England, Anura and I have been to the Crofts dog show many times.

He adored his two sisters. He spoke very proudly of them. Even though there were political differences, the love he had for them did not diminish. He took strong objection if anyone spoke against them. Whenever Sunethra or Chandrika dressed up and looked nice, he used to tell me they were looking ‘glam’ today. He was very pleased and proud about it. During his childhood his parents were often busy and his attachment to his sisters was very strong. Even when he was in London, Sunethra used to see to his needs. When the end came, both his sisters really did the very best they could to make his life as happy and comfortable as possible. When he returned from hospital shortly before his death, the house was decked in balloons. When Christmas time came, to cheer him up, Chandrika decorated the Christmas tree herself. Anura was also fortunate in having a most dedicated group of personal staff.

Having a sincere and loyal friend in one’s lifetime is one of the greatest things one could hope for or dream of. In this respect I am very, very lucky. To begin with we were both bachelors and had so much in common. So, I can definitely say ‘Goodnight, Sweet Prince’ and hope that our paths will cross again if there are other lifetimes.

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